AFI boss on his 20 years: strong growth and big wins after almost going broke

Watson told ProPrint that the Melbourne-based group would grow 10% this financial year and was forecast to grow another 15% in 2013-14 due to a focus on innovation and customer service.

Watson has seen the highs and lows over 20 years with AFI, winning glamour contracts and almost going broke.

He joined in 1993 as an apprentice screen printer, a year after it was founded by his father, Al Watson. He became managing director in 1996 when his father handed over the business and was inducted into the Fespa Hall of Fame in 2012.

His time as managing director has seen AFI make the BRW Fast 100 in 2006 and win the ‘Look’ contract for the 2006 Melbourne Commonwealth Games.

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“It began as a $1 million contact and eventuated in a $3.5 million job. It drove AFI’s growth, put AFI on the radar for other events and large contracts and provided the capital for investing back into the business,” he said.

“The contract involved basically all the signage requirements, including venue signage across many different sporting locations, about 60 kilometres of fencing and temporary signage for road events like the marathon, flags and temporary flagpoles for the medal ceremonies, and street-scaping the iconic areas of Melbourne and the CBD.”

He added that AFI also did work for the 2000 Olympics and 2003 Rugby World Cup, and has supplied the Melbourne Grand Prix since 2004.

Watson said AFI almost collapsed in 2000 because he made the mistake of being too trusting with payments.

“Nearly going broke was such a valuable business lesson though and I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything,” he said.

“This caused a shake-up in how I approached business and made me focus on the core values that still serve AFI today: innovation, excellence and a ‘can-do’ attitude. It also forced me to focus on bottom line, not turnover.”

Watson said other key moments during his time as managing director included selling 50% of the company to Active Display Group in 2008 and acquiring SLS Group in 2012.

AFI has 30 staff and runs three super-wide digital printers, two 3m-wide heat curers and a fully automated Zund cutter, said Watson.

[Related: More Victorian news]

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